Hands on meets high tech at Small Farms Conference

When Louisburg sweet potato farmer Jason Brown was starting out in agriculture, he often turned to YouTube videos to learn the latest techniques.

At Saturday’s Successful Small Farms Opportunities Conference, organized by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and the Franklin County Small Farm Association, Brown was able to connect with experts in person.

“Especially in today’s agricultural climate, you have to be on top of new practices – there are so many things you can do to maximize your land,” Brown said.

This year’s conference at Vance-Granville Community College in Louisburg offered 10 information sessions that covered both tried-and-true agricultural mainstays and high-tech innovations. The sold-out event also featured a trade show to connect small farmers with resources.

New state Extension Service Director Richard Bonanno kicked off the event, drawing on both his public policy work and his own work as a vegetable and flower farmer in Massachusetts to discuss food safety.

“The world is changing, and people are going to be asking you more and more about this,” Bonanno told the crowd. “You answer cannot be, ‘I’ve been in business for 100 years and haven’t killed anybody yet.’”

The conference is an important connection point for both experienced farmers and those just starting out, said volunteer Kelsey Lichtenwalner, who is also the Warren County livestock and field crops agent with the Extension Service.

“There’s this movement where people want to go back to agriculture and produce their own food, local food, but there’s not a lot of information on how to do it,” she said. “This is a place for people from all over to come together to share techniques and knowledge and make their dreams a reality.”

That’s why Kenny Geddings and Paula Soderlund signed up. Passionate believers in the importance of locally grown food, they were seeking information on how to expand production on their five-acre chicken and honeybee farm in Creedmoor. They left with a wealth of ideas.

“It was exactly what we needed to know,” Geddings said.

A committee of farmers and experts chooses the topics each year, deciding based on relevance and forward-thinking. Right down the hall from “Small Scale Sheep Production and Marketing Guardian Animals” were sessions on how to market your property to attract farm stays and weddings as part of the growing agri-tourism trend. The keynote speaker at lunch was Griffe Youngleson, CEO of farm marketing app Farmzie, which allows farmers to sell directly to consumers via smartphone application.

Brown, a former NFL player who grows sweet potatoes on about a thousand acres of land in Louisburg, also brought along the conference’s youngest participant. Brown’s 8-year-old son, J.W., said the sheep production workshop was his favorite – “I really did like hearing about the nice meat they have, and the fine wool” – but still plans to be a cattle farmer.

“I just love to eat beef,” he said.

– C. Kellner